Open source hardware isn't just for hobbyists. Early corporate adopters can reap business benefits.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

May 11, 2012

5 Min Read

Those of us with gray hair remember when mainstream companies viewed open source software with extreme skepticism--that is, until it became apparent that the Internet backbone was running reliably on OSS. Now attention is turning to open source hardware.

Open source hardware? Really?


If you've been following the Maker Movement, you're already in the loop. Just as many open source iterations and eyes changed the face of software, so it will go with hardware. Want to build a USB battery charger out of a mint container and other widely available components? Limor Fried (aka Lady Ada) to the rescue, with her "minty boost" USB charger.

Surely this movement is for hobbyists only, right? You don't want to fork out $50 for a USB battery charger, so you fork out $20 for the kit and work on it with your buddies over the weekend.

[ As you build your own hardware, take on another job also. Read The CIO Wears Two Hats: Isn't IT Enough? ]

Well, there's a larger world out there. Like open source software, open source hardware started among hobbyists and will make its way into the corporation.

I chatted recently with Travis Good, co-chair of this week's Hardware Innovation Workshop, about several companies that are making money with open source hardware, including SparkFun Electronics and Fried's Adafruit Industries.

When you manufacture something based on open source, you don't make money on the intellectual property. Open source hardware isn't a business model, says SparkFun CEO Nathan Seidle; it's a business driver. It's about "enabling companies to move faster and be more pliable than ever," he says. If that's not a familiar battle cry to business and IT leaders, I don't know what is.

IT exists to provide technology services to advance business goals. If your business creates kiosks, vending machines, vehicles, or other types of consumer hardware, my money is on IT contributing massively to cutting costs and increasing speed of deployment.

Maybe that means IT organizations becoming aware of open source designs and assisting product engineering and manufacturing with integration into real-time business systems. Maybe it means working with a subcontractor. Open source hardware won't be good for everything, but it will be fantastic for certain things.

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Except, organizations that don't have massive hardware prototyping facilities can't play in this space, right?


In the same way that you can join a health club and reap the personal benefits without buying $100,000 worth of weight machines, you can also join a rapid prototyping club. TechShop, for example, offers many fabrication options, including "milling machines and lathes, welding stations and a CNC plasma cutter, sheet metal working equipment, drill presses and band saws, industrial sewing machines, hand tools, plastic and wood working equipment including a 4' x 8' ShopBot CNC router, electronics design and fabrication facilities, Epilog laser cutters, tubing and metal bending machines, a Dimension SST 3-D printer, electrical supplies and tools."

The value of the open source hardware movement hasn't gone unnoticed by Ford Motor Co., which offers TechShop memberships to employees. The Open XC platform that lets developers create phone apps to interact with Ford vehicles is based on Bug Labs, an open source hardware platform.

Open source hardware isn't just the purview of engineers in product development labs. It can apply just as much to IT pros.

Your peer at SparkFun, IT director Chris Clark, summed it up well in a recent email conversation: "All the money we were saving by not investing thousands in expensive proprietary software and systems for our infrastructure could be funneled into hiring better people to build that infrastructure for us using open source platforms and combining open source utilities to not only do the job but do it in a heavily customized way that gave us the flexibility we needed." As open source software and hardware start to converge, expect the hardware for things like telemetry, credit card reading, and vending--perhaps even network routing--to become much less expensive and proprietary.

Open source hardware becomes more attractive to CIOs as hardware platforms become more closed, as walled gardens spring up on all kinds of platforms, and as questions about who really owns the hardware and whether it's legal to jailbreak or repurpose hardware arise.

But open source hardware, like open source software, is going to help only those CIOs who have an open mind.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at [email protected] or at @_jfeldman.

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About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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